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Our History

Underground history lesson

Harry Smith Looks at Detroit's Little Known Legacy

In March 1836, 13 determined men and women received permission from the Territorial Legislature of Michigan to own and operate their own church. Second Baptist is the oldest religious institution owned by blacks in the Midwest. Second Baptist claimed a mission to free the enslaved and have them enjoy the full privileges of American citizenship.

From 1836 to 1865 (the end of the Civil War), the church served as a “station” on the Underground Railroad receiving some 5,000 slaves before sending them on to Canada. By giving them food, clothing, and shelter the church was in total defiance of the Fugitive Slave Laws.

In 1839, Second Baptist established the city’s first school for black children. In 1870, a member, Fannie Richards, became the first black career public school teacher in Detroit.


In 1843, the first State Convention of Colored Citizens met at Second Baptist demanding the right to vote. The Equal Rights League made the second petition in 1865. Both were denied. The church persisted until the end of the Civil War when the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were added to the Constitution declaring an end to slavery, making blacks citizens, and allowing black men to vote.

In 1859, Abolitionist Frederick Douglass spoke at Second Baptist minutes before a meeting in a Detroit home with revolutionary John Brown to plan methods of freeing slaves.

In 1863, the church hosted a public reading of the Emancipation Proclamation to explain that President Lincoln had freed the slaves in only the 10 “rebellious” states, leaving the nation half-slave and half-free.

In 1927, Ralph Bunche, the first black to receive the coveted Nobel Peace Prize, was baptized at Second Baptist.

Over the years, Second Baptist can claim direct or indirect influence in the creation of over 30 churches. 

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